T-shirt designer to bishop: ‘I’ve never heard of a church like this, I thought they were all like those crazy people on TV’

In a recent post to his blog, Bishop James Hazelwood of ELCA’s New England Synod reports on a conversation he had when he went to order T-shirts for ELCA’s upcoming national assembly. If it sounds like a promo for his denomination (and mine), well, so be it. Nothing wrong with a little evangelism from time to time. But it’s also a reminder that the news media tend to engage in broad and divisive stereotyping in their religious coverage.

Either way, it’s also a heartfelt indictment of President Trump’s America. And, by implication, his alliance with some elements of the so-called Christian Right. Hazelwood said:

Just yesterday [May 24] I was in a local T-Shirt store ordering T-Shirts for our New England Delegation to the Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee. As I discussed possible designs which would communicate our churches’ concern for the poor, the planet, the immigrant, etc., … the young early 20 something woman said to me. “Wow, What kind of a church is this?”

I explained concisely our history, our core values and Grace. Her response tells us so much.

“I’ve never heard of a church like this, I thought they were all like those crazy people on TV.”

She asked where she could find such a church, and I gave her the local name.

But Hazelwood’s report was kind of a good news-bad news story.

His conversation with the graphic designer in the T-shirt shop was the good news. The bad news was that it came toward the end of a post, headlined “This Cruel and Heartless Administration,” on the then-impending deportation of the Rev. Betty Rendon, student pastor at Emaus ELCA Church in Racine, Wis. In it Hazelwood suggested — I think quite accurately — that the Trump administration is actively hostile to mainline Protestant denominations like ELCA.

(Pastor Rendon was later deported to Colombia. Elsewhere I’ve linked to articles and a video of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s remarks at a vigil at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago. No need to repeat my comments here, other than to note I’m broadly sympathetic to Bishop Hazelwood, Pastor Rendon and her colleagues at Lutheran Theological Seminary Chicago.)

Hazelwood’s comment was succinct, and he unequivocally said Trump’s policies show an unremitting hostility to mainline Lutherans who oppose his policies on immigration and human rights.

“When the government starts deporting your pastors, and denying VISAs for short church related visits, you know things have changed,” he said. “It’s worse than any of us thought.”

Hazelwood said Pastor Rendon’s deportation wasn’t the only recent slap in ELCA’s face.

“In addition this past week, Pastor Imad Haddad was denied (by intentional delay) a VISA to come to visit us in the New England Synod,” he said. “His trip was a part of a three city visit as a Companion Church. Pastor Haddad serves in the ELCJHL, Lutheran Church in the Holy Land. His visit, like many others in the past, was intended to be a bridge building encouragement as we attempt to Build Peace not Walls.”

I’m familiar with the Peace Not Walls program, a joint initiative of ECLA and the ELCJHL (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land). Debi and I toured holy sites in Israel and the Occupied Territories under its aegis, along with Lutheran NGOs in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, an Israeli settlement in the Judaean desert and the Israeli foreign ministry, which has the portfolio for minority religions, including Christianity, in the Jewish state.

I’ve also blogged about that tour, most recently last week. And I came away from it with an intense sympathy for everyone on all sides of that seemingly intractable conflict, as well as a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by Christians in the Middle East.

New England is a companion synod to the ELCJHL, and Pastor Haddad’s visit was part of an ongoing relationship. He was slated to speak at Trinity Lutheran Church in Worcester, Mass., and two other locations in New England. But, for whatever the reason, his visa was delayed. Bishop Hazelwood was furious:

This administration continues to practice the most vicious, cruel and heartless policy in relation to Pastors in the Lutheran Church. Even if you are an ardent supporter of this President, you must admit this is all a far cry from the talk of deporting criminals.

Why?

What purpose? What value is served by these acts of hostility?

Bishop Hazelwood’s design consultant in the T-shirt shop didn’t identify the “crazy people on TV” she was talking about, but Trump’s alliance with right-wing evangelical Protestants is well known.

(Trump’s evangelicals, by the way, are not to be identified with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Their theology is different, and their political views are quite different — although ELCA and, to an extent, some evangelical organizations have a “big tent” philosophy that tries to accommodate a range of opinion. So generalizations, to be fair, are at best difficult. Certaininly the evangelicals I know are not kooks.)

On the Middle East, however, Hazelwood’s views (and mine) are quite different from Trump and his supporters, evangelical or otherwise.

Where ELCA promotes initiatives like Peace Not Walls, Trump is thought to be under the sway of “Christian Zionists” who support Israel because they believe it will bring on Armageddon, the end of days and the Rapture. In a perceptive column in The Guardian, world affairs editor Julian Borger said Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem demonstrated the clout of extreme right-wing evangelicals.

“The two pastors given the prime speaking slots [at the embassy dedication],” Borger said, “were both ardent Christian Zionists: Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor on record as saying Jews, like Muslims and Mormons, are bound for hell; and John Hagee, a televangelist and founder of Christians United for Israel (Cufi), who once said that Hitler and the Holocaust were part of God’s plan to get Jews back to Israel, to pave the way for the Rapture.”

While Trump’s evangelicals cheered the move, it angered Christians in the Middle East, including Lutherans in the Occupied Territories.

“This is where it all started,” said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church [Weinachtskirchen] in Bethlehem. “The Bible originated in Palestine, not in the Bible Belt, but people in the Bible Belt read the Bible in a way that really makes our lives difficult.”

So around and around it goes …

From a Lutheran parish north of Chicago whose pastor was deported, to Trump’s immigration and Middle East policies, to a conversation about “those crazy people on TV” in a T-shirt shop to a Palestinian pastor denied entry to the U.S. so an event designed to promote international understanding at Trinity Lutheran Church in Worcester, Mass., had to be canceled.

And where it stops, apparently, nobody knows.

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